I consider myself pretty lucky that when I divorced, my former spouse and I were civil enough — or maybe just too cheap! — to mediate and avoid lawyers and stay out of family court. And, we agreed that we would coparent 50-50, one week on, one week off.
It hasn’t always been easy for any of us, but considering some of the horrible stories out there, our lives post-divorce seem like a breeze.
Except there’s one thing that I didn’t fully realize — just how entwined our lives would remain.
Most of us who are thinking about leaving our marriage imagine divorce will be like this: Freedom.
My first divorce was; I haven’t had contact with my first hubby in decades. But, we didn’t have kids and therein lies the rub — just because you’re not living together doesn’t mean that former spouses aren’t dealing with each other when they have kids. Thankfully, my kids’ dad and I are friendly — I know many divorced couples who aren’t. So, I eagerly devoured Patrick Parkinson’s book, “Family Law and the Indissolubility of Parenthood” (Cambridge University Press, 2012), which came out a few months ago.
As the University of Sydney professor of law says, “The experience of the last forty years has shown that whereas marriage may be freely dissoluble, parenthood is not.”
The family law model we’re still using dates back to the 1960s and ’70s, which assumed divorce was a clean break. He went his way, she went hers — with the kids — and all was (presumably) good.
But rarely has that been true, and family law reforms have radically changed that. Most divorcees learn relatively quickly — and perhaps shockingly — that a former spouse still has a say, and can nix our plans to move away for a new job or a new love. “The promise of personal autonomy and a new beginning that the divorce revolution offered has proven largely to be an illusion,” he writes. Divorce is no longer the end of a relationship; it’s a “restructuring of a continuing relationship.”
Which has made some of us post-divorce as miserable as we were in our marriage.
“People in unhappy marriages do not look to divorce as a way to restructure the relationship with their partners. They look to divorce to end that relationships, to set them free to start a new life, perhaps to move to a new location and to form new relationships,” he says.
There have more custody battles in recent years because — guess what? — dads, who were mostly absent in the old days, are now desiring more custody time. It’s a great thing, but, as he notes, “Because fathers demand a greater involvement in their children’s lives after separation, there has been increasing conflict both at a policy level and at the individual level of litigated cases.”
I was particularly interested in what he had to say about fathers. First, he cites a study that states, despite the rhetoric of father’s rights groups, more dads want to “assist in the parenting role after separation than take over as primary caregiver.” (That study dates back to 1993, however, and is limited to Canada; I’d love to see a more recent study).
And he notes although it has been increasing over time, many dads do “drop out” of their kids’ lives. Why? “(S)erious conflict in the relationship with the mother, leading to maternal gateclosing; repartnering and responsibilities to children in the new family; physical distance; feelings of disenfranchisement by the legal system; and limited financial resources. Most of these men would want a greater involvement in the children’s lives if their circumstances were different.”
I wish he broke that down by percentages — how many men get tired fighting a former wife’s gateclosing and give up versus, say, remarrying — but they come from several studies,
Dads increasingly want more meaning and connection with their kids:
Separation motivates some fathers to rethink their priorities and to try to maintain their connections to children even if this means struggle and conflict. Because fathers demand a greater involvement in their children’s lives after separation, there has been increasing conflict both at a policy level and at the individual level of litigated cases.
The kids want it, too:
(Y)oung adults who lived in sole-custody arrangements expressed more feelings of loss and more often viewed their lives through the lens of divorce, compared to those young adults who grew up in more shared physical custody arrangements.
He then takes a look at who did the primary caregiving in the marriage, and questions if that should determine how much time the nonresident parent, typically Dad, has after divorce, so-called past-caretaking standard. There are many legal incentives and it’s just plain efficient to specialize in a marriage, and that works against dads, who are often the breadwinners and not the primary caretakers:
The argument that fathers should not have a greater role in parenting after separation than they had before separation ignores the significance of the change that separation can make to fathers’ attitudes to the parenting role.
He cites a study that found that dads often shift their priorities after divorce, such as leaving the workforce or cutting back on hours, to be with their kids more.
There is a big global push toward shared parenting, but, as he notes, that is often dangerous to children in high-conflict families. And even in no-conflict families, the kids reported it was most successful if they felt at home in both households, if there was enough flexibility to allow for changing needs and circumstances, and, most important, whether the arrangement was based on the needs and wishes of the parents or the kids. Meaning, the parents would have to act like adults and put their kids’ needs first, which many do not. And sometimes, the kids say they want that arrangement by trying to be fair to both their parents, not themselves.
In any event, he says “Coparenting after divorce, whatever form it takes, requires new patterns of parenting to be developed in the very different circumstances that exist for the enduring family.” I couldn’t agree more, and this important book, which I will refer to in future columns, is leading the way.
- Do you have shared custody?
- Do you see more dads wanting more time with their kids post-divorce?